Modern monopolies

Hit and Miss #9

Hello there!

I hope this week has been great for you. (And if it hasn’t, know that that’s fine too! Sometimes things go that way, and with time we can find ways to bounce back. Let me know if I can help—I’ll be happy to.) I finished writing a few essays and received exciting news on a research grant (will share in more detail next week), so for the first time in a little while I’m breathing easy.

Something’s been on my mind for a (long) while.

I’ve always been interested in how we communicate and what that means for us. Since as early as grade eight, I’ve been reading and writing on media industries. Many will also know that I have a longstanding interest in reading and writing—I’ve got a fair number of books on the subject! Lately this interest has been oriented toward the impact of the internet specifically, especially the increasing corporate control of social media monopolies.

Corporations like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on are modern monopolies. They primarily monopolize two things: data and attention. When I saw Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner, speak a few weeks ago, he said that these monopolies “treat people as products to be sold to advertisers”. They develop sophisticated techniques to a) keep us on their platforms and b) harvest information about us based on our time there.

Increasingly, this information is sold not just to advertisers, but to political actors. This past Wednesday, a few Silicon Valley lawyers were hauled before a U.S. Senate committee for questioning about how their platforms were used by foreign powers during the 2016 election. I excitedly tweeted about the proceedings. (This live coverage is also good.)

Considering issues like these is often overwhelming. A major obstacle for me is that, despite my criticism and awareness of their flaws, I continue to turn to these platforms. They have captured me: I feel trapped and not sure where else to go. It’s hard to keep up with friends—these platforms make it easier. But is that a sufficient reason to stay?

In times like these, I turn to writers like Zeynep Tufecki (columns, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest book, TED talk) and Tim Wu (columns, The Attention Merchants book)—their critical eyes continue to nuance my perspective. I highly recommend reading them.

I have some thoughts on these issues, but I’m still working on articulating them. Consider this a first foray—I’m frustrated and thinking about it a lot, but still figuring out what I want to say.

Have you considered some of the downsides of these platforms? Have they frustrated you? If so, why? And if you have decided to stay with them, why? What keeps you there? Perhaps together we can start to sort some of this out.

Here’s to a good week.

Sent on November 5th, 2017.